Years before I competed in the 2000 Olympics, farm life in Wyoming taught me how to handle high-stakes competition. I grew up on a 160-acre dairy and beef ranch in Afton (pop. 1,500), the youngest of nine children. My brother Reynold, older, wiser and more cunning by one year, would often challenge me to wrestling matches, usually after I'd just eaten a big meal or finished some heavy lifting that left my arms sore. The winner got to do the less taxing chores.
If I won, I'd only have to milk the 50 cows, which meant hooking them up to the machines, walking away to listen to the radio and coming back 10 minutes later to collect the milk. If I lost, I'd have to spend hours cleaning manure from the stalls or carrying 100-pound hay bales into the barn. Our battles were fierce. We played a game called barn scoop, in which one of us would use a plastic milk bottle with the bottom cut off to scoop hay at one end of the barn and—with the other player trying to tackle him—carry the hay to a barrel at the opposite end. Whoever got the most hay in his barrel won. We also played kickball in the basement, H-O-R-S-E in the backyard and, in the living room, takedown, a variation on wrestling that over the years destroyed a chandelier, a rocking chair and some hanging lights.
For four generations my family has farmed in Afton, which sits in the Star Valley, south of the Grand Teton range. The town is too small to have a stoplight but boasts the largest interlock-ing-elk-horn arch in the world. (It's 75 feet long and spans four lanes of traffic on Washington Street.) Afton is so rural that when I was growing up, a few kids rode horses to school.
Without athletics I'm not sure I would have left the farm much. Thanks to our church sports program, I grew up playing basketball and softball. At Star Valley High, I enjoyed football, wrestling and track. Because there were so few schools around ( Wyoming's population is less than 500,000, the smallest of any state), our teams often traveled to Idaho and Utah for games. The first time I went to Idaho Falls, it seemed like another world. It had a mall and—even more amazing—an FM radio station. I'd grown up having to listen to whatever out-of-town AM station I could find.
As a junior at Star Valley, in 1988, I finally beat Reynold in wrestling—we were the team's top heavyweights—but I developed a staph infection and sat on the sidelines as he won the state championship. I won that title the next year. Throughout my career I often wrestled competitors nobody thought I could beat, like Russia's Alexander Karelin, the three-time gold medalist whom I defeated in the Olympic Greco-Roman heavyweight final. To me, they were all like the big brother I had to overcome.
I was inspired in sports by a local track and field star, Dave Draney, who was six years older than I. Dave, who became a top decathlete at BYU, was totally dedicated to his training. He never missed a day in the gym, drank pop or ate candy. In 1988, when I was 17, Dave told me that I had the ability to do something special in wrestling. Neither of us talked about winning the Olympics, but hearing that from Dave left a deep impression on me. In May, Dave lost a long battle with cancer, and his death made me realize that I owe a lot of my success to Wyomingites like him. Dave and others in the Valley helped raise money to send my family to the Sydney Olympics by holding everything from a golf tournament to a milk-can dinner, at which people paid $5 each to eat sausage, ham, corn, onions and potatoes all cooked together in huge milk cans.
Lately I've been living and training in Colorado Springs, but after I retire from competition, I plan to settle in Afton. I'd like to build a rec center in the Valley, especially for older citizens. They've supported me throughout a career that has taken me far from Afton, and they've taught me about values and determination. I like to think that wherever I go, I take their lessons—and a little of Wyoming—with me.